There’s only one way into Cabo de San Antonio by land – a two-lane road that stretches along the Guanahacabibes Peninsula, passing miles and miles of deserted white-sand beaches, coral outcroppings, mangroves and thickets of tall, skinny palms.
Many visitors to Cuba don’t get beyond Havana’s colonial architecture, vintage cars, cigar salons, pulsating music scene and the beaches east of the capital. But a whole other world of natural splendor awaits.
Just go West.
Being adventurers at heart, a friend and I made Cabo de San Antonio – just 154 kilometers off the coast of Mexico - our goal.
To get there, you’ll have to show your passport at a checkpoint at the beginning of the peninsula and tell officials you have a reservation at the 16-room Hotel Villa Cabo San Antonio. A collection of cabins, it's the only accommodation on Cuba’s westernmost point.
After dodging a wild boar, renegade calf and a few iguanas skittering across the road, we arrived just as the fiery orange sun plunged into the ocean and the nearby Roncali lighthouse lit up for the night.
There aren’t any markets here, so the barman asked what we wanted to eat the next night. “I need to defrost it,” he explained.
The road ends three kilometers further along at Los Morros marina. There’s a little bar there festooned with the sailing flags of yachters who have made their way to this remote outpost, and it was the perfect spot for a nightcap to salute reaching Cuba’s extreme west.
The next morning, I came across the wild pigs as I returned from breakfast at the main lodge and another group of piglets as I headed to the virgin beach for a quick swim.
We were there in December and the mosquitos weren’t bad, but come July and August, watch out and bring plenty of bug spray.
We took a meandering route out to the peninsula from Havana, leaving ourselves plenty of time to explore. In Artemisa and Pinar del Río provinces, you’ll find the Vuelta Abajo where some of the finest tobacco in the world is grown, caves and otherworldly limestone hillocks called magotes sprinkled throughout the Viñales Valley, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve at Las Terrazas, an international dive center at María La Gorda and the largest orchid garden in Cuba at Soroa.
Tour operators have started to add Cuban eco-tourism destinations and there are even turtle research tours to the peninsula during the height of loggerhead and green turtle nesting season in July.
But to capture the flavor of western Cuba, rent a car or car and driver. Book well in advance, because it’s difficult to find self-drive rentals on short notice.
The route through Pinar del Río winds through prime tobacco-producing land where oxen still work the fields. You can follow a government map and guide along “The Tobacco Route,” which includes tobacco farms open to the public and where to buy cigars.
But we found tobacco farms that weren’t listed to be accommodating as well. Workers were happy to explain the curing process and how they cultivate tobacco. At one stop, a campesina even hustled into her house to brew us some fresh coffee.
If you want to visit the second westernmost point in Cuba, take the southern turnoff to María La Gorda instead of heading out to the tip of Guanahacabibes Peninsula.
It’s now an international dive center, but it has a more checkered past, and there are plenty of versions of how the community got its name.
We liked the version told by the bartender at the Villa María La Gorda, the beachfront resort and dive center: In the era of pirates, María and her father, who were Venezuelan, were shipwrecked and came ashore at the site of a brothel. She eventually became a madam of some renown and lived out her days on the tip of Cuba.
As three dive boats bobbed in the turquoise waters, visitors sipped mojitos in the bar and studied their scuba certification manuals. Three-day certification courses and more advanced diving instruction are offered in Spanish, English and French.
A full day trip with two dives, full equipment, lunch and snorkeling off a deserted beach costs about $90. The reefs and underwater caves are just a few minutes offshore.
There are also Hobie Cat rentals and a palm-fringed beach perfect for lounging. El Carajuelo restaurant is named after a favorite local fish, but you can also get lobster and even shrimp pizza.
At the end of a long day on the water, visitors gather on the beach with drinks in hand to salute a sunset that’s almost always spectacular.
BIRDS AND COFFEE IN PARADISE
LAS TERRAZAS, Cuba
I’m sitting on a bench near a century-old carob tree that juts through the roof of the Hotel Moka waiting for the first rosy fingers of dawn and my bird guide to arrive.
I’m a first-time birder but guide Otis Campa assures me we’ll see plenty of birds at Las Terrazas, part of a teeming UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Not 100 meters from the eco-lodge, we’re rewarded as Campa spots a loggerhead kingbird and then in quick succession warblers, a red-legged thrush and a Cuban pewee.
There are 374 bird species endemic to Cuba and the island is a favorite stopping-off place for migratory birds, says Campa.
As the sun climbs higher, he points to a branch where the tricolor tocororo, Cuba’s national bird, perches. Its red, blue and white feathers mimic the colors of the Cuban flag.
In all, we spot 21 birds as we trek through the hills and the mist rises off the valley. It feels a bit like we’ve wandered into an early landscape of Cuban artist Tomás Sánchez.
Centuries ago the French planted coffee on the slopes of the Sierra del Rosario but when they abandoned the plantations, the terrain was almost denuded.
Now, the area has been reforested and some 8 million trees -- mahogany, cedar, ebony, gumbo lindo, teak -- were planted on the terraced slopes. The small community has become an experiment in sustainable development.
Located 60 kilometers west of Havana, Las Terrazas is an easy day trip, but if you spend the night, you can explore not only the serene beauty of the biosphere but also nearby attractions like the ruins of the Buena Vista coffee plantation, which towers 240 meters above sea level.
If you don’t want to get up with the birds, try visiting Las Terrazas’ artist and crafts community, take a zip line over the lake or visit Café de Maria to pick up a bag of freshly roasted coffee beans.